Steve McQueen really loves to make Michael Fassbender stare. Whether it's at a person, an object, or simply off into the distance, both of the director's collaborations with Fassbender have featured quite a bit of soulful/mournful staring. The difference in their second go-round together, though, is that this time the staring actually feels as though it has some characterization to it. Rather than hit a sophomore slump, McQueen and Fassbender have made a vast improvement in Shame, the director's examination of loneliness and sex addiction.
First thing's first, a confession: I'm part of that small group of film enthusiasts who wasn't won over by McQueen's debut, 2008's Hunger. Though it had moments of power, I was ultimately left cold by the director's attempts to use famed IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands as a symbol of eternal dedication to a cause. As such, I was hesitant to endure another McQueen-Fassbender collaboration, even though I was momentarily impressed by what the director pulled off in that film. This time, though, by focusing on an issue as faced by a fictional person (and free from any danger of political bias, accidental or otherwise) McQueen has really hit it out of the park.
Shame revolves around Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome (though I suppose that's a given considering the actor playing him), mid-30s man in Manhattan with a compulsive, all-consuming addiction to sex. His routine, however, is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). In the film's opening stretch, McQueen intercuts Brandon walking around his apartment naked with his attempted "flirtation" with an attractive woman on the subway. Though it initially feels slightly hollow, it does visually convey Brandon's state of mind regarding sex: it's not a matter of romance, it's about purely about the physical act. Without spoiling anything, the way Brandon's staring at the woman comes full circle functions as an obvious, albeit powerful statement regarding the character's transformation over the course of the film.
As Brandon, Fassbender caps off a stellar year that has finally given him attention he's deserved for a while now. He's made his mark in roles ranging from Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, to a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class. In Brandon, however, the actor is able to end the year with a performance which goes beyond everything he showed before, which is no small feat. As in Hunger, this is a performance that doesn't rely much on dialogue, and more on physicality and facial cues. However, unlike Hunger, Shame actually gives the actor something to work with, sparse as the script may be. Instead of simply staring off into space, it feels like there's some meaning to Fassbender's long, silent looks, even if we're not entirely sure what they mean. There's no clear answer as to where Brandon's addiction comes from; the closest answer comes from a line from Sissy, "We're not bad people, Brandon. We just come from a bad place." That's it. And yet, under McQueen's guidance, that answer doesn't matter. What's important isn't the baggage that led Brandon to his condition, but rather how he deals with it. What could have become dull and repetitive becomes magnetic in Fassbender's understated, yet powerful presence.
Every bit his equal, despite her significantly small screen time, is Mulligan. Going as far away from her role in An Education (which scored the actress an Oscar nomination) as possible, Mulligan leaves quite the impression whenever she appears, particularly in her drawn-out rendition of "New York, New York." Where Brandon is sullen and introspective, Sissy is a live wire, and seeing Mulligan take charge of the role so fearlessly is impressive as hell. If anything, I wanted more interaction between the siblings, because it felt like there was so much territory in that facet alone that McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan could have covered. That the script keeps itself so thoroughly focused on Brandon almost becomes a problem, because Sissy sometimes comes close to being underdeveloped to the point of being little more than a plot device. Thankfully, the power that McQueen is able to wring out of Brandon's story makes up for it, but this small issue is one that, if fixed, would only have made the film stronger.
As far as flaws go, there's not much else to go at. Though Shame's opening made me worried that the film would feel hollow, the performances and McQueen's direction manage to dig deeper than one would expect, and the climactic moments hit home. Some dialogue feels on-the-nose, as if McQueen and Morgan wanted to spell out Brandon and Sissy's issues rather than giving it a context. And though the film is edited and paced impeccably for the most part, one of the most important scenes goes on too long by about half a minute. It doesn't ruin the moment or drain it of its power, but after so many successfully executed long takes, it's surprising that a moment involving faster-paced cuts ends up feeling overly long.
On the artistic and technical front, however, the film is quite outstanding. In addition to the almost flawless editing, the film benefits from cold, crisp visuals, long takes (that rarely, if ever, leave one's mind wandering), and a combination of smart sound track choices and a limited score from Harry Escott. Though the movie may earn (just barely) it's NC-17 rating, it's anything but trashy or exploitative. The only shame greater than Brandon's would be to miss the movie (y'know, assuming you're old enough).